The start of the 2010 season finds MotoGP in a deeply schizophrenic state. The MotoGP class remains sparsely populated, with just 17 riders on the grid - despite prospects of one new manufacturer running wildcards and another looking to enter the series full time once the paddock returns to Europe. Meanwhile, in the brand new Moto2 class which replaces the 250cc two strokes, 40 riders are scheduled to take to the start at Qatar.
This year sees a bumper crop of rookies enter MotoGP, bringing some much-needed fresh blood into the class, along with a healthy dose of excitement. At the same time, the podium lineup at every race is as good as fixed, with the Fantastic Four almost certain to claim the lion's share of the silverware, leaving the rest of the field to pick over what remains.
Added to this, we've had rules introduced to reduce costs, which this year at least have caused the manufacturers to spend more to prepare for the cost-cutting rules. With each rider having just 6 engines to last the full 18 races, the factories have had to pour resources into R&D to ensure riders aren't facing costly penalties if they don't quite make it all the way to Valencia without taking an extra engine. With that work now done, the factories will start to make big savings, as the need to fly back a cargo load of engines - often two or more per rider - to their R&D centers in Japan and Bologna to be stripped down and rebuilt has now been removed. By the end of the 2011 season, the engine rule should be paying dividends for the manufacturers.
The Fantastic Four...Five...Six...
What makes the 2010 MotoGP season such a mouth-watering prospect is that we are, as veteran MotoGP journalist Mike Scott put it a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of a new Golden Age for motorcycle racing's premier class. Arguably the greatest motorcycle racer the world has ever seen is at the very top of his ability, and being pushed to extend himself by the competition. That competition consists of not just one, but three other riders, while more wait in the wings. On any given day, the order of the podium is completely unknown, though the faces which fill it are nearly identical every week.
As reigning champion, Valentino Rossi is determined to defend his title for the 8th time, bringing him level with Giacomo Agostini's premier class record and bringing his total world title count to 10. Rossi has all but dominated pre-season testing, topping the timesheets in nigh on every session. While clearly much of that is down to the talent of the Italian, the results of the other Yamaha riders demonstrate that some of the credit has to go Masao Furusawa and the Yamaha race department, who have taken an already strong bike and made it even better. The new long-life engine has more torque and mid-range, yet those gains have not come at the expense of top end, the M1 easily matching the pace of the other bikes down the straights. A fast bike, a strong challenge and a few bottles apparently drawn from the Fountain of Youth stashed away somewhere, Rossi has found new motivation, which combined with his usual mixture of determination, guile and sheer talent, will make the Italian a very hard man to beat.
Hard, but not impossible. Especially given that Rossi's challenge comes from two opposite directions, meaning the Italian can neither allow his guard to drop nor focus on just one man. For if Rossi neglects Casey Stoner to concentrate on Jorge Lorenzo, then the Australian will not hesitate to plunge in the knife. The same holds true for Lorenzo: should Rossi get caught up in holding off Stoner for too long, Rossi's young Spanish teammate will be hovering like a starved hyena and ready to pounce.
Both Stoner and Lorenzo have the raw speed needed to beat the veteran Rossi, and both riders have had hard lessons in racecraft at the hands of The Doctor. Yet both men are also keen and diligent students, only likely to fall for something once. Casey Stoner had his lesson at Laguna Seca in 2008, when Rossi made his M1 so wide that the Australian dumped his Ducati in the gravel in frustration at not being able to get past. But 14 months later, Stoner showed he had learned his lesson, holding off Rossi at his home Grand Prix in Phillip Island with consummate skill, never giving the Italian a chance.
That victory was part of a run of three which signaled the Australian's return to racing, after a mystery illness - finally diagnosed as lactose intolerance - forced Stoner to miss three races in the middle of 2009, much to the annoyance of Marlboro, the Ducati team's big-money sponsor. But the break was needed, as the Australian's struggle with his health had been painfully obvious, finishing races from Barcelona onwards in a state of utter exhaustion.
Once they'd narrowed the problem down during the summer break, Stoner was back, and stronger than ever. Finishing second at Estoril, the Marlboro Ducati rider took the next three races in a row, and only a mystery tire problem which saw Stoner highside out on the warmup lap at Valencia put paid to further success.
Casey Stoner starts the 2010 season with a winter of training - both physical and in identifying foodstuffs which could cause him problems - behind him, fitter and probably faster than ever before. In addition to that, Ducati have hugely improved the Desmosedici, giving it a new big bang firing order making much easier to ride at the limit. With everything in place for Casey Stoner to succeed, the Australian is going to mount a formidable challenge for 2010, a challenge which might just prove insurmountable.
Brothers In Arms
Valentino Rossi won't be the only rider vying to dismiss Stoner's challenge, though. Rossi's teammate Jorge Lorenzo will be right there with Rossi and Stoner every step of the way. Lorenzo's second season in the premier class saw him lose much of the wildness he had displayed in his rookie year in MotoGP, crashing both less frequently and less painfully, helped in part by the new D-Air "airbag" leathers from Dainese, which probably saved his collarbone from worse at Laguna Seca.
Along with smoothing off his rough edges, Lorenzo also received a little one-on-one tutoring from his Fiat Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi. At Barcelona, Lorenzo allowed Rossi to dive underneath him in the final corner, convinced he already had the race in the bag. Then at Brno, keen to avoid a repeat of the Barcelona experience, Lorenzo slid out of the race trying to hold Rossi off. He learned quickly, though, forcing Rossi to make an almost identical mistake at the next race, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With another year's experience under his belt, Lorenzo looks like posing the toughest challenge yet to Rossi's title aspirations. The Spaniard is on identical machinery - a demand he forced through during contract negotiations last summer - and was on course to get his best shot at taking the title before cracking a thumb in a training accident. Lorenzo starts in Qatar with a painful hand, and still not fully recovered. With the competition as tough as it is, the Spaniard will start the season with one hand tied behind his back. By Jerez, though, Lorenzo should be back to full fitness, and a serious threat once again.
The last of the Fantastic Four is in danger of losing his Alien status. Dani Pedrosa was brought into the Repsol Honda squad to reclaim the title that HRC regards as rightfully theirs. But after a strong - if tainted, after that incident at Estoril - start to his career, Pedrosa has failed to score better than his by now ritual two wins a season.
Only part of that is down to the Spaniard though. In 2007, the bike HRC built to be small and agile, and suit lightweight riders, was completely blown away by the high-powered Ducati. Improvements came in 2008, but the bike still had problems with balance and stability, problems which continued through 2009. A switch to Ohlins suspension was meant to cure that issue, but problems continue - at least for Pedrosa - despite HRC's extraordinary mea culpa, blaming itself for not providing Pedrosa the bike to win.
Patience on both sides is starting to wear thin. For the first time in years, Pedrosa starts the season fully healthy and recovering from neither injury nor surgery, but he finds himself confronted with a bike he is struggling to ride. The Spaniard finished the final test of the preseason in lowly 13th position, far below where both he and Honda expect and demand to be, and over a second and a half behind the leader, Casey Stoner.
Pedrosa's problems revolve around the Ohlins suspension, which HRC is now using in place of Showa. Pedrosa grew up using Showa, racing on them throughout his career in 125s, 250s and now MotoGP. With Showa gone, Pedrosa is having to completely relearn bike setup, and is struggling to eliminate the pumping from the rear shock that is upsetting his balance on the brakes. All of the 2010 RC212Vs are suffering similar problems, but Andrea Dovizioso and LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet - who have both been using Ohlins for some time now - were 3rd and 8th fastest respectively at Qatar a month ago.
Pedrosa will need to find solutions quickly, as will Honda. Pedrosa's status as the fourth Alien is in danger, with riders coming up behind him. There's still no doubt that Pedrosa has the talent to win, his problem seems to be that he can only win when he has his day. The other three members of the Fantastic Four seem to be able to take victories any time, anywhere.
Knocking At The Door
Snapping at Pedrosa's heels come a pack of hungry young - and old - riders, eager to take a step closer to the podium and transform the Fantastic Four in the Fabulous Five, or Superb Six, or Special Seven. The rider widely tipped to be the first to break into that select group is the man who shocked the World Superbike paddock last season, Ben Spies. The Texan entered the WSBK class last year and from the very start, took poles and wins at tracks he had never even visited before - including a double victory at Losail in Qatar, the site of the MotoGP season opener. By the end of the season - thanks in no small part to his crew chief, Tom Houseworth and his mechanic, Greg Wood - Spies had taken the championship at the first attempt, holding off the man that many had penciled in for the title, Xerox Ducati's Noriyuki Haga.
Spies brings both House and Woody to the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team, and perhaps more importantly, he brings their solid and methodical way of working. But any hopes that Spies and his crew can repeat what they achieved in World Superbikes need to be tempered. Firstly, Spies still has some learning to do - though the fact he consistently finished inside the top 5 during testing demonstrates his ability to learn.
The Bridgestone front tire poses a particular problem for the Texan. Spies is finding it very hard to wrap his head around just how fast the front tire is up to temperature, and how hard it can be pushed from cold. He is still finding the limits of the tire at the start, though he told a press conference last week that he was fine once the tire started to lose grip, around the halfway stage. Given how well Spies did in the second half of the race at Valencia, fighting his way through to 7th after dropping to 11th in the early stages, the American could become a real threat once the season gets underway.
To expect Spies to factor at the start of the year is a little too much to ask, though. Firstly, the series doesn't really hit tracks he has ridden at until the time MotoGP arrives at Assen, at the end of June. Secondly, but perhaps more crucially, despite the obvious talent on the World Superbike grid, Spies is up against the four best riders in the world, together with another handful capable of beating most riders on most other days. The chance that Spies will equal the record of Kenny Roberts Senior, and take the premier class title at the first attempt is very slim indeed.
Even a win will be difficult, though Spies' teammate Colin Edwards believes this year represents the best chance that satellite riders - and Spies and himself in particular - have ever had of winning a race. The engine limits - so vilified by the purists - may end up boosting the fortunes of the privateers. Though the factory riders will still have the latest upgrades first, engine upgrades will be far less frequent, keeping the playing field level for longer and improving the chances of the satellite riders.
Edwards hopes to be the prime beneficiary of this change, and finally get the win he has been chasing for so long. Like Rossi, Edwards is improving with age, though the Texan is a good deal older than his Italian former teammate. Last year, Edwards showed that he deserved the #5 he uses by finishing the season in 5th position, ahead of four other factory machines. He may find that position a good deal more difficult to hold on to this year, though: The Yamaha M1 is unquestionably good, and probably still the best bike on the grid, but along with a hungry teammate, he faces fresh challengers as well.
The strongest challenge is likely to come from the man he pipped to 5th in the title race last year. Andrea Dovizioso has used the experience he gained from his mid-season switch to Ohlins suspension last year to find a very strong base setup for his Repsol Honda RC212V. The Italian finished ahead of his teammate in the two last tests, and is sounding increasingly confident in interviews, a stark contrast with the barely-disguised despair of Dani Pedrosa.
But Dovizioso is under pressure to succeed. The Italian will need to start getting closer to his teammate if he is to keep his job at the end of the season. The contracts of the Fantastic Four are all up at the end of the year, and Dovizioso could find the second seat at Repsol Honda a popular target for rookies and veterans showing promise as part of a larger HRC shakeup. If Pedrosa moves and Dovizioso fails to keep pace with the front four, he could find himself exploring other options, despite his strong ties to HRC.
Dovizioso isn't the only rider to be under pressure. The burden of needing to start scoring regular results falls even more heavily on Nicky Hayden in 2010. After a high-profile switch to Ducati for 2009, the likeable Kentucky native was baffled and befuddled by the hard-to-tame Desmosedici GP9. Hayden only just kept his job at Ducati after Jorge Lorenzo turned it down in the middle of last year, though the fact that Hayden helped sell a lot of Ducati 848 Laguna Seca replicas helped him in that respect.
There is plenty of reason to be hopeful, though. Two factors have conspired to give Nicky Hayden his best chance of redemption since winning the 2006 MotoGP title. The first is the greatly improved rideability of the Ducati Desmosedici, the big bang firing order engine making the bike more tractable, while simultaneously saving fuel. The second is simply experience, having data he can use when he turns up at a track. Hayden and his crew spent several races chasing their tails last year, desperately searching for a setup which would work for him. With a year's data to work from, Hayden hopes to be up to speed much more quickly, so he can concentrate on getting the last few tenths out of the bike, instead of struggling to find a second or more. Given Hayden's improved results during testing, the Marlboro Ducati rider could finally have be competitive week in and week out.
The question of whether Randy de Puniet can run at the front with the Fantastic Four still remains open. The Frenchman has often shown exceptional speed, but a lack of consistency and a linger tendency to crash - largely dissipated by the switch to Bridgestones - keep preventing De Puniet from making a major breakthrough.
Just as at Yamaha, though, the satellite Hondas are much closer to the factory bikes this year, giving De Puniet a genuine shot at the front of the field. With a strong chance of factory seats opening up next season, De Puniet's chances of getting a factory ride have never been better. As long as he gets the results.
C'Era Una Volta
Once upon a time, Marco Melandri was penciled in for a factory ride, after some outstanding results aboard the Gresini Honda at the end of the 990cc MotoGP era. But since the switch to 800s, Melandri's fortunes have waned, hitting a low point during his year at Ducati in 2008. The Italian redeemed himself astoundingly last year, riding a Kawasaki rebadged as a Hayate, after Kawasaki pulled out of MotoGP.
This year he returns to the Gresini team, no longer sponsored by Fortuna as in Melandri's heyday, but instead by San Carlo, and a host of other smaller sponsors. Melandri had been hoping for a return of his glory days, but so far, the Italian has suffered a similar fate to Dani Pedrosa and his teammate Marco Simoncelli. Melandri has struggled to find any pace, suffering the same lack of balance that Pedrosa has reported with the Ohlins suspension. If Melandri and HRC can't find a solution to those problems, Melandri's last chance at a factory ride will be gone, and 2010 could well end up being his last season in MotoGP.
Every year, fans and commentators speculate that this season will be Loris Capirossi's last in MotoGP. And every year, the Italian veteran - scheduled to start his record-breaking 300th Grand Prix on Sunday - earns the right to stay on for yet another season. He starts his 21st season at Qatar, and has already told the press he hopes to stay on for a season aboard the 1000cc bikes, due to make their debut in 2012.
During testing, Capirossi has been very strong, the Rizla Suzuki GSV-R finding some of the performance that it was lacking last year. But Suzuki's problem has always been that they usually do well in testing at Qatar and especially Sepang, the two venues for pre-season testing this year. So we will only get a real idea of the Suzuki's potential once the series moves on to Japan, and from there back to Europe. There is no question about Capirossi's motivation or his sheer talent, 21 years at the top of the motorcycle racing world is testament enough to that. The key to Capirossi's success lies not with the 37-year-old Italian, but in Japan, with Suzuki's engineers. Have they finally come up with the goods to turn the GSV-R from also-ran to front runner.
From testing, it's clear that this is exactly what Ducati have done, and that will surely help Mika Kallio. The Finnish rider had a strong rookie season, regularly beating the suffering Nicky Hayden, but still struggling to get well into the top 10. His best chance came at Assen, when he crashed out in the penultimate corner, while scrapping over 6th place with James Toseland.
During testing, Kallio has continued to run in the bottom of the top 10, so there is still room for improvement for the Pramac Ducati rider. With a pack of rookies snapping at his heels - riders who he rode against and only occasionally beat - Kallio will have to show some improvement to be certain of his job in 2011.
It is a truism that the first person a racer has to beat is his teammate, but that is particularly apt in the case of Kallio. He is joined once again by Aleix Espargaro, the Spaniard who took the place of Niccolo Canepa at the end of last season. Of the bumper crop of rookies joining MotoGP in 2010, Espargaro is perhaps the dark horse - though it is debatable whether Espargaro and Spies can truly be regarded as rookies, despite qualifying under the strict definition set out in the FIM rulebook.
The Spaniard raised a few eyebrows last year, subbing first for Kallio, then for Canepa in the Pramac Ducati team. With a full off-season of testing under his belt, his first goal will to beat Kallio, and then to start challenging for the top 5. The depth of talent in MotoGP this season is going to make that a pretty formidable task.
If Espargaro is one dark horse, then Hector Barbera could be even more of a surprise. The former 250 title candidate comes off victory in the final 250cc race ever held, at Valencia at the end of the 2009 season, and he moves up to MotoGP along with one of the most respected and impressive teams in the paddock. The Aspar team have utterly dominated both 125 and 250, and team boss Jorge Martinez has been angling to get into the MotoGP class for several years.
With Aspar running the team, the organizational side is solid. The rest is up to Barbera, and the Valencian could well turn a few heads. Previously known for his wild and positively hazardous passing maneuvers, Barbera mastered his intemperate nature in 2009, showing a cooler head and neither crashing nor taking other riders out nearly as often as in previous season. So far, Barbera has impressed aboard the Ducati, finishing up the order and usually ahead of his fellow rookies - the notable exception being Ben Spies.
While a victory in both his and the team's rookie season is extremely unlikely for Hector Barbera, the Pagina Amarillas (the Spanish Yellow Pages) rider is a prime candidate to cause an upset. When I expressed surprise at Barbera's strong showing on his debut on the Ducati at the post-race test at Valencia, one paddock wag remarked "he'll do fine on the Ducati. He doesn't have a brain..."
If Hector Barbera is the man most fans are likely to overlook - despite the garish yellow paint job on his Aspar Ducati - Marco Simoncelli and Alvaro Bautista arrive in MotoGP amid a blaze of publicity and attention. Simoncelli is adored in Italy, where he is being groomed as Valentino Rossi's replacement in publicity terms, while his archrival Alvaro Bautista was, until recently, hailed as Spain's next great hope at a title.
The price of being so heavily hyped is that it makes it that much harder to live up to expectations, however. Both Simoncelli and Bautista have had baptisms of fire on the entry into the MotoGP class. Simoncelli has struggled with the San Carlo Gresini Honda, finishing at or near the bottom of the timesheets at every test so far. Simoncelli's problems have confounded everyone, after his dazzling debut on the Aprilia RSV4 at Imola last year, but a V4 superbike is apparently a completely different kettle of fish to a V4 MotoGP bike, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brother will have his work cut out this year just to avoid humiliation.
After a poor start, Alvaro Bautista's fortunes have looked up recently, as the performance of the new Suzuki GSV-R has picked up. The worry for Bautista is that the spec Bridgestones have a stiff construction and a soft compound, Bautista preferring a softer construction and a harder compound, a different approach at achieving a similar level of grip. The altered construction of the Dunlops last season was one of the reasons Bautista struggled on the Aspar Aprilia, failing to pick up the title he was so hotly tipped for. If he can learn to handle the Bridgestones, Bautista may regain some of the form he seemed to lose last year.
The Quiet Champion
The man that Bautista and Simoncelli lost the title to is another rider likely to surprise a good many people. Entering MotoGP as reigning - and last ever - 250 World Champion should mean you join the class in a hail of publicity, but that simply doesn't suit Hiroshi Aoyama's quiet and unassuming nature. Aoyama moves up to MotoGP with another new team, the Interwetten Honda team run by Daniel Epp's Paddock GP, the man behind the Caffe Latte effort in 250 and 125. Aoyama is lucky to even be in MotoGP, as Epp had originally intended to run his protege, former 125cc champion Thomas Luthi.
But Luthi disappointed in 250s in 2009, while Aoyama truly shined. The Japanese rider took his underpowered Honda RS250RW - a bike that was virtually unchanged since Andrea Dovizioso last rode it in 2007 - and squeezed every last drop of speed out of it, braking later and carrying more speed than Aoyama's opponents could handle. When I asked about the performance of that 250, Aoyama's crew chief Guido Cecchini was clear: "Hiro uses this bike more than 100%" he said. That extra is what won Aoyama his title.
His former crew chief also praised his set-up skills, something that the Interwetten Honda rider will need in MotoGP. Aoyama's methodical and patient way of working, along with his attention to detail, have seen the Japanese rider make slow but steady progress, creeping closer to the front in the same quiet, unassuming way that he won the 250 championship.
The Stage Is Set
Looking at the rookies in isolation, Ben Spies is almost certain to take the rookie of the year award, given his already strong start to the season. But though Barbera might score the odd surprise result, and Bautista perform better than might be expected, Hiroshi Aoyama is likely to be the best-of-the-rest rookie, sneaking up on the top 10 almost unnoticed. Aoyama and Spies are surprisingly alike, though in very different ways. Both are calm and focused, and they share a careful and thoughtful approach to racing. They are both modest, despite their achievements, more focused on what they have to learn than what they know already. Spies and Aoyama will be the rookies to watch in 2010.
The addition of Spies, Aoyama, Simoncelli, Bautista, Barbera and Espargaro to MotoGP make this the strongest field the series has seen in a long time. There may be only 17 permanent riders in the series, but 13 of those riders have a total of 27 world titles between them, in various classes. Even more significantly, with the arrival of the top rookies into MotoGP, the arguments over who deserves to be in the class and isn't there are more or less over. Though there is still plenty of talent left in World Superbikes and Moto2, there are very few, if any, riders who deserve to be in MotoGP over the riders already signed.
The field in MotoGP may be deep, from the front of the grid just about all the way to the rear, what makes the 2010 season special is the fact that the title race is so open, and almost impossible to predict. Valentino Rossi is close to confirming his status as the best motorcycle racer of all time, while both Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo are making him work harder to preserve that status than ever before. Even Dani Pedrosa cannot be written off yet: On his day, he can still beat Rossi, Stoner and Lorenzo with relative ease, and if Honda give him the bike he needs, his day may come more often. And Ben Spies may just turn out to be another alien, transforming the Fantastic Four into a Fantastic Five. As Mike Scott says, we truly are living in a Golden Age.